In the final part of our look at the B to Z of movies, Tom Jolliffe explores the post millennium age, moving into digital film-making and the most open era for distribution…
In the wake of Corman, Kaufman et al, the VHS era gave way to DVD. Physical media now finds itself on the way out as distribution begins to swing more predominantly toward streaming. As well as this, the methods of film production have changed in the digital age and we come to a point now where films can conceivably be shot on I-Phone and find distribution. Editing software is more and more common and accessible as people become more and more tech-savvy, whether they want to cut together home movies, or produce skits on YouTube. You can edit through phone apps now. As a result of this, production companies are springing up everywhere, making films on a sixpence. The relative low cost and hassle of online distribution means that a film-maker could easily find a platform to show off their film, if even through YouTube. These freedoms of course are a blessing and a curse, while the playing field is forever changing (Amazon’s recently open and inclusive approach to accepting films took a sharp u-turn when they culled thousands of films from their Prime platform without warning).
Still, whilst this means that the indie film world is now bombarded with film-makers. Overstuffed with people all trying to make a mark, it coincides with shrinking investments being spread around exponentially increasing numbers of film-makers. This means swathes of film-makers trying to make movies on smaller and smaller budgets. Something like Evil Dead back in the day, which was seen as something of an underground, micro budget film from a bunch of young upstarts, had a budget (even before taking inflation into account) that would be deemed lavish by many modern era film-makers. By the same token of course, shooting on digital is far cheaper and more efficient than film-stock.
There remains a particularly popular market. This has been true since Corman. Horror and all that resides within the genre. Perennially the cheap genre, with an audience lying in wait. Even now, audiences who grew up watching Mystery Science Theatre (which would often take a sarcastic look at some of the trashiest movies ever made), gave way to an era where Tommy Wiseau’s The Room is heralded as an Anti-Masterpiece. A film so bad, it’s hilarious. That is certainly the extreme but it shows an audience willing to watch a film with a pre-set expectation of incompetence and mega-high levels of ridiculousness, in the hope of being entertained. Horror, creature features, Scifi are now not merely bought for scares, thrills, or intellectual challenge. A company like Asylum, specialising in ‘Mockbusters’ and creature features predominantly, doesn’t intentionally make films wilfully badly. They just market them to a pizza and beer, night in with your mates audience (predominantly males) who want to see something ludicrous. Occasionally film-makers will wilfully make something that winks at its audience so much, you might think it was having a stroke. See Sharknado for example. People buy into it, and you only need peruse your local DVD retailer (if you actually still have one that is) and see how many shark films populate the horror shelves. Sharks, spiders, snakes, and just about every creature or insect both real or mythical has had the regular filmic treatment by the likes of Asylum. It was something that companies like Nu Image in the VHS era began, before branching out into action too. Again, it follows from the golden age of 50’s B film creature features.
Distributors of course are happy to take on low budget horror these days. If you’re a film-maker with little money and no friends in high places, looking for an industry in, it’s likely that horror is your best bet. Scott Jeffrey of UK film company Proportion Production said, ‘A lot of distributors care mostly about sales etc, and horror has a strong audience. With horror, you can easily create a great/attractive cover art work that leads people to purchasing your film…Drama’s are incredibly hard to get funding for, and unless you have a name, it can be hard to get the film off the ground at all. Horror does not rely on any names, and doesn’t really need the budget either.’ Charlie Steeds, who runs Dark Temple Motion Pictures also concurs, ‘The more you copy a popular movie, the more success you’ll have. If you try something new and original, your movie might be doomed…’ Though Steeds is adverse to copycatting.
Even from my own point of view, I’ve found in my experience dealing vicariously through producers with distributors and sales agents, that flavour of the month is key. Just the other day a script I wrote featuring Cyborgs that was delayed and put on the back burner has come back into play. I’d happened to mention off hand to a producer that Terminator 6 being due out would probably see interest rekindle in the script. After they mentioned off hand to the distributor, this has indeed been the case, and we are looking a-go. It can happen this way, like the flick of a switch. These distributors are the gateway to the shopping basket. If they’re keen, it means you’ll have keen investors. From seeing things through the production side of the fence I’ve seen producers, writers and directors get hammered for having silly rip off titles, but often they’re the last person to get a say in it, and ultimately, if you want your film to sell well, and lead onto doing more, you have to settle with whatever retitling is put forward. As Proportion found recently with their upcoming release, Pet Graveyard (a title spin on the upcoming Pet Sematary remake, but in actuality bearing more resemblance to Flatliners and original title The Reaper). As Jeffrey puts it, ‘We got a lot of horrid comments about The Bad Nun due to its title… Well, we originally called it The Watcher. The biggest thing is, no one has a gun to anyone’s head, no one is being forced to watch anything.’
There may be an air of exploitation in the marketing of many of these films. Do people genuinely mistake what they’re buying for the big budget equivalent? Probably not, or very rarely. Though there were some very contentiously art-worked spins on Disney films on DVD last year, with near identical art and titles which could conceivably (and did) fool people into thinking they were buying the Disney version (The Little Mermaid for one). Still, this slightly cynical, calculated approach isn’t merely evident among the low budget video premieres, or mockbusters. This is a general tactic from the big boys right down to the guys swinging below, trying to punch above their weight. Marketing is do or die and if that means miss-selling, bordering on lying, then so be it. Whether it’s artwork unreflective of what’s in the film, artwork that mirrors bigger films, or trailers which sell the films as something different (in the case of some films, it ended up negatively affecting the lasting performance, for example the slow burning psychological film, It Comes At Night, marketed like a gruesome, post-apocalyptic horror).
Making films myself, even shorts, I came to an epiphany that ultimately changed the way I reviewed films. That’s not to say I won’t offer a negative critique giving my honest opinion, I always will but I’ll always acknowledge, no matter how slipshod or haphazard, that they got the film made, because believe me, for every film on the shelves, there are hundreds that got close but never quite got there, and below them, thousands that never got off the ground at all. I’ve had countless films on the verge of being made which fell through. Producers couldn’t find funding etc, etc. Or in the case of indie shorts, occasionally people just lose interest in making it, or don’t have the follow-through or determination. This lead me into producing myself as a means to an end. It’s the same for Jeffrey, Steeds and many more indie film-makers. Sometimes taking the reigns is the way to make up for all those fallen films, and if they still don’t happen you only have yourself to blame. So no matter if I may find a film terrible. Its existence, through a collaboration of dozens, hundreds, more, people is something to praise.
Producing films on these wafer thin budgets is challenging and in those initial films you are out to prove you can create marketable products. Competition has never been fiercer, driving down budgets as the shared movie making wealth becomes thinly spread. The fact anyone can make a feature for less than 20 thousand bucks is astonishing, but it happens and they get distributed into your local HMV, or supermarket or online. The challenge is to stand out.
I would guess in the upcoming new decade there will be a crossroads. Avenues will soon close off. There has been a certain open distribution freedom, in part to account for gargantuan numbers of film-makers creating movies for virtually nothing. Self-distribution was an option for everyone. Physical media distribution is a little harder to acquire, and with the format itself on the decline, as well as HMV close to the end (additionally I’ve noticed many supermarket DVD/Blu-ray aisles shrinking from 1-2 aisles to a couple of blocks). The challenge for Proportion or Dark Temple Pictures and all the rest, is to fight for distribution where doors will begin closing. It could mean even smaller budgets, or the need to gamble on more money film by film (and one failure could cause everything to fall). It’s a tough racket, and where it was beginning to open, it’s going to tighten. Even through streaming, where the overlords are beginning to get more stringent (the Amazon cull in particular), what may have been sure-fire a couple of years back, may not get the greenlight after 2020.
Time will tell, but this new breed of mavericks, existing in the wake of the legends, or the more recent companies like Asylum, in creating niche entertainment are ready to fight. For myself, as a screenwriter with a few straight to video specials due in the next year and a bit I have to enjoy the feeling of stepping into a shop and picking my film up, before that door shuts. People may assume companies like Asylum aren’t ambitious, that producers of these low budget films don’t care. This really isn’t the case. They have a goal, targets, and through the constraints try to deliver and they have the passion and that touch of insanity required to make movies in the first place. Ultimately, if you’re the kind of person that digs Sharknado and the like, then you’ll get what you came for. If you’re expecting Jaws, you won’t. But this, to an extent, goes right back to Corman, regularly slated for being a B movie peddler. To his fans though, he was an artist. His mentality, how he worked, can still be seen from the modern maverick, even as methods have changed.
I’ll sign off with a final salute to the B to Z of movies. From the golden era Poe-inspired B pictures, to the video nasties, to the digital age of mockbusters and cheapo creature features. Away from the cineplexes, and the mainstream, and away from critical acceptance, these offer low budget horror fans what they want. Sometimes it’s something ridiculous. Sometimes, they might just surprise you with the sublimely ridiculous.
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has three features due out on DVD/VOD in 2019 and a number of shorts hitting festivals. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.